Steve Rose

Steve Rose: Here’s how to sell reluctant voters on a new airport

KCI proposals explained in four minutes

Kansas City Star reporter Eric Adler explains the details and costs of four proposed improvements to Kansas City International Airport, built in 1972. Two renovation ideas and two new terminal proposals are covered in this explanatory video.
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Kansas City Star reporter Eric Adler explains the details and costs of four proposed improvements to Kansas City International Airport, built in 1972. Two renovation ideas and two new terminal proposals are covered in this explanatory video.

There was a miracle of sorts recently in Kansas City that portends well for the future of Kansas City International Airport.

I am referring not just to the $800 million infrastructure bond issue, which passed handily in this month’s election. I’m also talking about the long-shot citywide sales tax increase, which was approved with 52 percent of the vote and will bring more than $8 million annually in economic development to the inner city for 10 years.

The bond proposal had the benefit of money and influential advocates providing a jolt of momentum. The extremely popular Mayor Sly James was pushing it, as were leaders from powerful organizations. The campaign spent $1 million promoting it. And, perhaps most important, citizens knew firsthand that repairs to their streets and sidewalks were urgently needed.

That contrasts oh-so-sharply with the one-eighth-cent sales tax proposal brought to the ballot by a citizens’ petition. Not only did the issue not have establishment support, the mayor and city manager actually opposed it.

Money spent by that campaign was peanuts. There were virtually no high-profile civic leaders or organizations behind it. Not the Chamber of Commerce nor the Civic Council. It was an orphan.

Instead, the campaign for the development of the Prospect Corridor depended on two things. One was the dedication of grassroots organizations on the East Side. The other was a compelling plea urging those who would see no direct benefit to care about these neighborhoods and vote yes.

It is not surprising that Kansas City residents who live in Clay and Platte counties, north of the river, were too disconnected from the blight to be swayed. They resoundingly defeated the measure. But south of the river was a different story. There, citizens who were all too aware of the downhill slide of the East Side stepped forward to finally do something meaningful to improve an area begging for public help after decades of neglect.

How could a sliver of Kansas City attract enough yes votes from an entire city? Enough people set aside their own self-interests to lend a hand to a part of the community that was in great need.

This may seem like a stretch to correlate recent successful election results with a proposal to build a new single-terminal airport. But there are important lessons here.

Many assume that Kansas City voters who rarely or never fly out of KCI will have no incentive to vote yes for a new airport, even after they learn there will be no tax increase involved. But maybe, just maybe, enough voters would approve a measure that might not directly impact them if they were convinced that such a move would dramatically improve the entire city.

Maybe the voters who voted overwhelmingly to pass a gargantuan infrastructure bond issue could be persuaded that the present KCI has not only been neglected but also is outmoded for the future.

Across the border in Johnson County, a quarter-cent sales tax increase was passed in November with 53 percent of the vote to build a $200 million courthouse and coroner facility. There was all the reason in the world for it to fail. It was a low-budget campaign with almost no organizational leadership. And the overwhelming majority of citizens had never used the courthouse in Olathe and hadn’t even seen the current aging building. They had to be persuaded it was in the best interest of the community as a whole to approve the new facilities.

The moral of the story is people can be educated and convinced to care about something besides their own narrow self-interest. That will be the task of the KCI campaign organization. They will need to spend millions of dollars and run an unparalleled campaign to compel enough voters to focus on the fact that a new airport is critical to Kansas City as a whole, not on whether it directly benefits them.

At the same time, the successful low-key inner-city vote proves if you strike the right chords with people, the message itself is as critical as the breadth of a campaign.

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